Seattle Now & Then: Ballard's Bascule Bridge

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Ballard’s Railroad Depot and the Great Northern Railroad’s landmark lift bridge just west of the ship canal’s Chittenden Locks. (Courtesy, Warren Wing)
NOW: Ballard no longer has need of a railroad depot, but the Great Northern main line still passes here through the old mill town.

Hopefully a few trainloads of Pacific readers will remember Warren Wing, our recently deceased rail fan extraordinaire who after retiring as a postman started chasing trains and the pictorial history of Northwest rails full time.  Long ago Warren shared with the Ballard News Tribune this prized photo of a Great Northern passenger train nearly completing its crossing of the GN’s bascule bridge over the tidewater western end of Chittenden Locks.  The subject appears on page 82 the Tribute’s 1988 centennial history of their community, “Passport to Ballard.” Warren Wing has captioned it, “Great Northern Morning train to Vancouver B.C. passing Ballard Station.”  This carrier would have also stopped in Everett, Mt. Vernon, Bellingham and at the border but not, apparently, at the little Ballard Station obscured here in the shadow of the engine’s exhaust.

An early look to the northwest from Queen Anne across Salmon Bay into Ballard. The trestle showing is either for the first trolleys or the Great Northern's first bridge to Interbay. Some reader, surely, will know and make her or his point about it.
Looking north from interbay into Ballard - later. The sprawling bridge that runs through the center of the scene is roughly in line with 14th Avenue (not 15th) and services the street cars and wagons. The bridge on the left is for the Great Northern Railroad.

Rails first reach Ballard in 1890 with West Street Electric Company’s trolley service from downtown Seattle.  Three years later the Great Northern completed its transcontinental service to Seattle directly along the Ballard waterfront and beside the many mills that made it then the “shingle capitol of the world.”  This new route over the GN’s lift bridge was made necessary by the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the flooding of Salmon Bay behind its locks.  On June 29, 1913 this paper reported on the progress of the canal and the “spectacular form” of this “mammoth bridge,” which it measured at 1,140 long and 26 feet wide “to accommodate a double-track system.”

A profile of mid-term construction on the Great Northern bridge looking northeast from the Magnolia side.
Nearly the same point of view as the recording above it, but later.

In the pursuit of his “repeat” Jean Sherrard was soon inhibited by decades of changes. He recounts, “The overpass on 57th Street that we had hopes for was too distant from our subject, and the corrected prospect was both too steep and covered with foliage.  This left me in the rail bed just left of the tracks. To approximate the elevation of the original photographer, I hoisted my camera atop my ten-foot pole.  Walking back to my car, however, I did make one discovery. The original depot had been moved a hundred feet or so west, providing a spectacular view of the water – it had also been converted into a home, while retaining its distinctive gables. A neighbor confirmed that the former depot was now a residence.”  It would have been ideal Ballard home for Warren Wing.


Paul, I’m adding a couple of thumbnails of the old Ballard depot in its new location, transformed into a home:

Anything else to add, Paul?

A few related features Jean, beginning with two details of the once charming Ballard station followed by an early look north through the bridge from the Magnolia side..



(First appeared in Pacific, Oct. 26, 1986)

James A. Turner, who shot these pleasing views of the Salmon Bay Bridge, was one amateur who managed to put his photographic passion – railroads – on track with his vocation. During the 1930s, before the city got rid of its trolleys, Turner was a motorman on the Ballard line of the city’s transit system. During the weekdays he rode above the municipal rails, and then, judging from the size of his production, James Turner spent a good many evenings and weekends chasing trains or waiting for them.

For these subjects, Turner set himself off-shore on a Shilshole Bay dock below the Great Northern’s Salmon Bay Bascule Bridge, and so just west of the Chittenden Locks.

The Great Northern’s popu­larity among rail fans is a combination of its magnificent mainline through the Cascades and the Rockies, its safe and sturdy construction, its long Cascade tunnel, and the dashing green and black color scheme of its locomotives. And, perhaps, most of all the line is respected for its symbol, the mountain goat. Its dignity was totemic. A monumental rendering of this goat logo was painted on the Ballard end of the bridge’s massive counterweight.

As noted above with illustrations illustrating this week’s primary feature, the old mainline of the G.N. used to cross from Interbay into Ballard on a long curving bridge which spanned Salmon Bay near where the 15th Avenue auto bridge now crosses the ship canal. The bascule bridge was built in 1913-14 in part to avoid that trip along the shingle mill-congested Ballard waterfront. But it was also constructed to meet the inevitable demands of the Hiram S. Chittenden Government Locks. This was a bridge you could quickly open to let the big ships in and out of the new, in 1916, fresh water harbor behind the locks.  The bridge was left open for the convenience of shipping, for it could be quickly closed for any train.

Turner’s photographs are but two of his many picturesque records of this Salmon Bay passage. He lived in Ballard nearby the locks on 24th Ave­nue NW.  If I remember correctly (close enough) these and three other James A. Turner perspectives on the Salmon Bay bridge appeared originally in Warren Wing’s book, A Northwest Rail Pictorial.


A contemporary photograph of the Chittenden Locks taken from the same prospect as the historical would have required a roost in one of the upper limbs of the trees that landscape the terraced hill that ascends from the locks to the English Gardens. (Historical photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)


(First appeared in Pacific, June 27, 2004))

In the descriptive and yet homely parlance of hydraulics the historical photograph reveals what Army Corp of Engineers called the “dewatered pit” of the ship canal locks at Ballard. In the six years required to build the locks – from breaking the ground in 1911 to the dedication in 1917 – this photograph was taken near the end of the first year, in the fall of 1912.

That the historical photographer from the Curtis and Miller studio stood on higher ground than I did for the “now” is evident from the elevation of the Magnolia side on the right. The “then” looks both across and down on the locks, the “now” merely across it. Why?

The dry pit is considerably wider than the combined big and small locks because the excavation cut well into the bank on the north side of the locks. Much of the mechanicals for opening the big lock’s gates are hidden in the hill that was reconstituted and shaped with terraces in the summer of 1915 once the concrete forms for the locks took their now familiar shape at what is by someone’s calculation the second most popular tourist destination in Seattle. (What then is first?)

Looking south from the English Gardens to, from bottom to top, the western entrance to the big lock, the end of the same for the small lock and the waters stirred from the nine foot drop over the Lock's dam. The terraced grass covers much of the dam's mechanicals - its hydraulics.

Most of the temporary dirt cofferdam, upper-right, that separated the construction site from the temporary channel was removed in the fall of 1915 after the greats gates to the locks were closed. Next, on the second of February 1916 the locks were deliberately flooded and the doors opened to permit commuters to make emergency commutes to downtown Seattle by boat when the “Big Snow” (the second deepest in the history of the city) shut down the trolleys.

Three of the big lock - left-to-right, as dewatered pit, on the "Big Snow" day the big lock was first flooded in Feb. 1916, and sometime later with the Army Corps snag boat.

The locks were left open for tides and traffic while the damn was constructed to join the locks to the Magnolia side. With the link completed the doors were again shut and Salmon Bay was allowed to fill with fresh water to the level of Lake Union in July 1916. The small lock began working later in the month and on Aug 3, 1916 the first vessels (both from the Army Corp fleet) were lifted in the big lock. The formal opening followed months later on July 4, 1917.

Asahel Curtis' early look west from the open locks to the raised Great Northern bridge.

In preparation for the 1916 flooding of Salmon Bay behind the locks Ballard’s waterfront of mostly mills and boat works was measured for the changes.


Above and below: After considering Shilsholia, which sounds similar to the native name for this waterway and means “threading the bead,” Lawtonwood got its name by vote of its residents in 1925. (Historical view courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry) In order to see over the well-packed “East Lawtonwood” Jean Sherrard took his “now” from near the north end of 42nd Ave. Northwest, about 100 feet above the waterway.  Behind him in “West Lawtonwood” the homes are often much larger and the lawns too.

“Threading the Bead” Between Magnolia and Ballard

(First appeared in Pacific, Dec.19, 2010)

Carolyn Marr, the librarian at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and an authority of the photographer Anders Wilse’s years in Seattle, thinks that this his look east through the entrance to Salmon Bay – from Shilshole Bay – was probably taken in 1900.  That was Wilse’s last busy year in Seattle before he returned to Norway.  During his few years here Wilse received many commissions from businesses and the City of Seattle to do photographic surveys.  But why did he record this bucolic view over a Lawtonwood pasture with seven cows?

It was not long after Wilse recorded this view of the channel that the Army Corps started dredging it in preparation for the ship canal.  Throughout the 1890s smaller “lightening ships” hauled cut lumber from the many Ballard mills on Salmon Bay to the schooners anchored in deep water off of Shilshole Bay.  No vessels here, however.  The channel is near low tide.  You can make out the sand bars.

The home of Salmon Bay Charlie, a half-century resident here, can be found to the far right.  With irregular roof boards it may be mistaken for part of the shoreline.  Charley was one of the principal suppliers of salmon and clams to the resident pioneers on both sides of this channel.  Wilse gives us a good look across the tidewaters into a west Ballard that while clear-cut is still sparsely developed.  The Bryggers settled and developed that part of Ballard, and the few structures seen there may belong to them.

Librarian Marr finds two other related views in MOHAI’s Wilse collection. One looks in the opposite direction across the channel from Ballard, and the other is a close-up of Salmon Bay Charlie’s cedar-plank home.  Marr adds, “Wilse was interested in boats and waterways, as well as Indians.”

One last note: those may be Scheuerman cows.  The German immigrant Christian Scheuerman and his native wife Rebecca were Lawtonwood pioneers.  Settling here in 1870 they multiplied with 10 children.



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